Austerity bites

Liza was 28, working in a bookshop, and studying for a second degree when she became pregnant. “We moved in together because we thought we ought to. That lasted for a year after she was born.” Liza and her partner made a plan for their daughter’s arrival; he would help with childcare so she could return to work. But the plan unravelled when he decided to embark on a career change during her pregnancy. “So he quit his job and that was very stressful. We had no income really.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting any support from him, and I wasn’t getting any support from anyone else because they all thought he should be supporting me. So I left in order to get some support.” Liza makes a wry face and laughs. She is nearly always laughing; her dry humour usually directed at herself.

Mother and baby survived on income support and tax credits, two “big” overdrafts from her student days and some child support from her daughter’s dad. “That put a strain on our relationship. He didn’t appreciate them taking money straight out of his wages.” But the bigger strain was on Liza, who, driven by loneliness and a desire to escape the constant worry, scoured her local community, a small town outside Bristol, for friendship. “I had gone from being a free spirit to a lonely isolated single parent.”

When Liza says ‘single parent’, her face changes and the heaviness of the stigma darkens her features. But in her eyes is a sharp defiance. Too often lone parents are caricatured in the press and by politicians, particularly if they are women, and these subtle prejudices seep into the lives of single parents as they battle for the services they need to do the difficult job of raising children alone.

Contrast the government’s eagerness to reward married couples to the rhetoric used when discussing social security for single parents.

Then look at the government’s latest childcare announcement, designed to reduce childcare costs through the tax system. This will subsidise childcare for middle to high earners and do little for those parents working below the tax threshold in part-time, low paid employment. And it is the dearth of affordable childcare that forces lone mothers into these jobs.

Find out what happens to Liza over at the New Statesman. I also wrote this piece on the impact of government policy on lone parents here.

The Lone Parent Trap

Lone parent families are twice as likely as coupled families to live in poverty, and according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the British government’s tax and benefit changes could push a further 400,000 children into poverty by 2020. The government insists that finding work is the best route out of poverty.

But when single parents do find work that they can fit around their children, it is likely to be precarious and low-paid.

There are two million single parents in the UK, nine out of ten are women. What most have in common is a lack of part-time jobs paying a living wage, affordable childcare, or support to help them enter work after years spent raising children.

Single parents receive income support (£71.50 a week) in the United Kingdom and are obliged to look for work when their youngest child turns 5. On Income Support parents receive a tailored service, including a lone parent advisor to help prepare them for work, discuss childcare options and ‘better-off in work calculations’. The Jobcentre is not obliged to continue this provision for parents on Jobseeker’s Allowance, though some centres do.

But with the number of total claimants having doubled from over 750,000 in 2008 to nearly 1.5 million in 2012, even if a Jobcentre wishes to provide a tailored service to help lone parents into work it may lack the capacity to do so.

The government says work is the best route out of poverty and most lone parents want to work. Under the current government’s welfare reforms this means they must attend fortnightly jobcentre interviews to prove they are searching for work. What happens when they get there?

My report on the subject was commissioned and edited jointly by OurKingdom and the Friend, the independent Quaker magazine. It was published simultaneously in OurKingdom and, as a Fox Report, in the Friend. The Fox Report is the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Read the full report here http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/rebecca-omonira-oyekanmi/lone-parent-trap

The illustrations were provided by Patrick Koduah, a London based illustrator and animator with prizewinning work that includes projects exhibited in the Embassy of Japan, commissioned portraiture of prince Michael of Kent and music video animation for the Rolling Stone Band of the Year 2012.